Past President Victor de Mello passes away

Victor de Mello

Victor Froilano Bachmann de Mello

Victor de Mello, a Brazilian geotechnical engineer, died on January 1st, 2009, aged 82.

Son of a Professor Medical Colonel M.P. and a German Swiss mother Victor de Mello was born in Goa, Portuguese India, in 14 May 1926, attended British boarding school in India, moved to Boston in 1944; as a brilliant student at the MIT he obtained both his BSc and MSc in 1946 and his doctoral degree in 1948. He immigrated to Brazil in 1949 to be a Brazilian, both because of deep-rooted cultural affinities with Goa, and because of the nostalgic challenges of unopened frontiers of tropical civil engineering. It is in Brazil and from Brazil that Victor has grown from his strong roots into a big tree, spreading his teachings to the four winds and the fruit of his works through countless projects built.

His academic skills nourished with Donald Taylor, leading to a marked influence in MIT´s shear strength and in the stabilization of clays research projects, the later granting him US Patent 2.651.619.

His enthusiasm in civil engineering involved action and creation on behalf of society, leading him to accept the invitation of Light and Power Company, from Sao Paulo Brazil, to join its department of hydroelectrical power new developments in late 1949. In 1951 he joined Geotecnica, a geotechnical engineering services, design and construction company. Following a return to MIT on 1966/1967 as senior visiting professor, Victor started his career as individual consultant.

His main contributions include embankment and gravity dam engineering, earthmoving, tunnels and underground works, deep urban and port-lock excavations, foundations for high rise buildings, bridges, industries, ports, jetties, breakwaters, highways and railroads. One of his technical passions was probability and statistics applied to engineering design philosophy, together with risk analysis. 

As an individual consultant or as a member of international advisory panels he participated on the design and construction of some major engineering projects: Emborcação, Foz do Areia, Guri, Pedra do Cavalo, Tucurui, Yacyreta, and hundreds of other dams in Brazil, in all of Latin America as well as in other countries as Angola, Burkina Faso, China, Irak, Iran, Mozambique, Turkey, Tunisia, etc. – the research and developments proposed by Victor on the behaviour of compacted saprolites and residual soils have influenced dam engineering throughout the world. His activity also included the design and follow up of large open pit mine projects in Brazil, in the Imigrantes highway, Ferrovia do Aço railway, in the geotechnical problems of Confins, Galeão, and Manaus airports, Açominas, Albras, Alumar, Alunorte, Camaçari, Cubatão, and Duque de Caxias refineries and steel and aluminum mills. One of his fascinating contributions was in the Diagnoses of Catastrophic Slope destabilizations in Hong-Kong 1976 -1979.

His professional vision was marked by intense job-generated research/observation and lonely mental experimentation and debates, with data and interpretation published world-wide. Emphasizing the priority sequence of allegiances as firstly a world citizen, thence a civil engineer for better fulfillment, and finally only subordinately a geotechnical specialist for better engineering, and preaching the preeminence of creativity, and of prescriptions rather than correlations, as dominating geotechnical engineering design. In lecturing on his select case histories he always surprised by stressing from each case the lesson whereby the earnest optimized solution should principally indicate how not to repeat it, if the case chanced to present again.

An enthusiastic and intense perennial challenger and debater, he was often rightly misunderstood as disagreeing with his colleagues, while he was really debating against the topic and his own questionings. His approach has been exposed and expanded in some important papers, among which the Rankine Lecture (1977), Foundations on Clays (1969), The Standard Penetration Test (1971), Thoughts on Soil Engineering Applicable to Residual Soils (1972), Some Lessons from Unsuspected, Real and Fictitious Problems in Earth Dam Eng´g (1975), Philosophy of Statistics in Geotechnique (1975), Behaviour of Foundations and Structures (1977), Behavior of 2 High Rockfill Dams (1984), Foundations of Gravity Dams, Geomechanical Interaction (1984), Destabilization of Rockfill Slopes (1986) Embankment Dams and Dam Foundations (1989), Lessons of Adjustments to Tropical Saprolites and Laterites (1989), Revisiting our Origins (1994), Landslides by Maximized Infiltration: Fundamental Revision of Stability Calculations and Stabilizing Drainages (2003), several being available at his website. Victor was working on a book on his visions on applied soil mechanics, which he left unfinished and will be made available in the near future.

Some of the honors received include being a honorary member of many Societies of Soil Mechanics (Argentina, Japan, Portugal, Southeast Asia, Venezuela), Fellow of the Third World Academy of Science in Trieste Italy, Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Engineering of the USA, President of the International Society of Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering (1981-1985), Vice-president of the International Society for Rock Mechanics (1970-1974), Founder and President of the Brazilian Society of Soil Mechanics and geotechnical Engineering (1964-1966), recipient of the Terzaghi Award twice in Brazil and of the Manuel Rocha Award in Portugal, Terzaghi Orator ISSMFE (1994), member of the National Academy of Engineering of Brazil and of Argentina.

In an attempt to honoring Victor de Mello and celebrating his contribution to geotechnical engineering the Brazilian and the Portuguese geotechnical societies have created the Victor de Mello Lecture, the first of which was delivered by John Burland in 2008 and is available in many websites.

Victor was also a special human being. His love and strong links to his brothers and sisters started early in their lives, with the six of them being educated at home in Goa, allowed four of them to get higher degrees in the USA and maintained till today, with family gatherings.

Music, literature, dancing, wind surfing, tennis were also among his interests. Victor played the piano, and this helped him to find his way to MIT. His love to music included occidental classics, Portuguese fados, Brazilian popular music, and Indian ragas. Nature and art nurtured him; his everyday drive to his office changed according to which trees flowered in the route pending on the season. His wide cultural background led him to pursue knowledge in a multidisciplinary constellation of authors. And his habit of starting early each day included long, intensive working hours, and also leisure and sports.

Professor de Mello died peacefully of a minor stroke, in his home in São Paulo, Brazil, after a long process of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease). He leaves his wife Maria, his daughter Lucia Beatriz, his son Luiz Guilherme and four grandchildren. A great human being, a true individual and friend, an outstanding practicing engineer, has left our community.

Luiz Guilherme de Mello

Attachment: Victor de Mello Lecture-J Burland-Soils and Rocks 2008.pdf